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Imperial Bedrooms – Andy isn’t quite Clay in Bret Easton Ellis’s hands

April 4, 2012

So I found this in my favourite second-hand bookshop in Northcote. (“Signed!” chortled the chap who’s always behind the counter. “I should charge you half price really shouldn’t I, I mean someone’s scribbled in it! Ha!” He’s usually in better form.) Despite being told, ad nauseum, by Nettie that Ellis’s books need to be read in the order he wrote them, she encouraged me, after blogging on Less Than Zero in January, to hunt this one down. She’d be interested to see what I thought of Clay 25 years down the track.

Fuck me. Clay, you sad, sad fuck.

I preferred Less Than Zero – just. The writing in Imperial Bedrooms is probably marginally better but it seems like 25 years ago Ellis was one of these vicious fucks who sits down in front of a computer and bam, he’s writing like a dream. God I hate those vicious fucks. Imperial Bedrooms is good, it’s very very good, but one of the things I enjoyed about Less Than Zero was its lack of plot. What drove it was its nihilism, its amorality, its – i don’t know, it’s absence on so many levels. That was spectacular, and spectacularly done. Imperial Bedrooms has a plot. Kind of. And it’s well constructed, it’s well developed, it keeps the reader involved, it makes the reader take sides, and in that there are elements of nihilism and amorality because the side you end up on isn’t actually the kind of side any decent person would want to be on. But still. The reader takes sides. The reader wants to know what happens next, the reader wants to know how it’s all going to end.

Which isn’t quite how I remember feeling when I read Less Than Zero.

Lack of plot was a major strength of Less Than Zero. Reliance on plot in Imperial Bedrooms seems to me a bit of a weakness. It may be the only weakness, or certainly the only major one (the last line though, Jesus Bret couldn’t Clay’ve thought of something more original than that?). Clay, in his 40s, is a kind of repulsive, lecherous drunk. A successful-ish screen writer, as well, which actually makes him even more repulsive. Clay’s reliance on gin is at once familiar (ahem) and kind of gross. Also funny. Despite the metafictive mumbojumbo of the book’s first few pages this is very clearly the same character that narrated Less Than Zero, but 20-plus years older, 20-plus years drunker, more twisted, more bitter, more fucked up. Clay is awesome, in all the wrong ways.

Most of the other characters are as you might’ve expected them to be 20 years down the track as well, although why Clay’s ex Blair ends up married to a poofter I don’t know. I guess that stuff still happens in LA. Hell, I guess it still happens in Melbourne. Hell,  I know it still happens in Melbourne. It’s just that it’s … retarded.

Rip is arguably not what you might’ve expected him to be 20 years down the track but I suppose he was a little monster in Less Than Zero and he’s survived 20 years, and when monsters survive that long it’s probably not because they stopped being monsters. Or became smaller monsters. Still, there didn’t seem to be a continuity there, the kind of continuity that was clearly present with some of the other characters. Perhaps drug dealers don’t do continuity.

Julian, of course, is the wild card. Julian, arguably, was the character most egregiously abused in the movie version of Less Than Zero. Robert Downey Jr was great, of course, but the reality is Julian didn’t die at the end of the book. There wasn’t even the vaguest suggestion he was close to popping his clogs. So I have to say I smirked, possibly even laughed out loud, when at the top of page 9 of Imperial Bedrooms, during that early metafictive mumbojumbo section,  Ellis has his characters go to a cinema to see the movie of the book that somebody who wasn’t Clay wrote. (And of course Clay didn’t write it. Ellis did. Like, der.) Julian – the real Julian, not the Robert Downey Jr Julian – the real Julian – or at least Breat Easton Ellis’s Julian – is deeply distressed by the depiction of his death on the big screen. Clay, being Clay, seems vacuously amused by Julian’s distress.

And then on the bottom of page 9 of Imperial Bedrooms Julian, 20 years later, has been tortured to death. This is not a spoiler. I don’t think telling someone what happens nine pages into a book (seven pages actually, it starts on page 3) constitutes a spoiler, even if it is the death of a character with which you may have had something of a twisted emotional attachment for more than half your life. That’s the bit that amused me. Movie death in the eighties at the top of the page, “real” death a couple of decades later at the bottom. Clever. Manipulative. Wink-at-the-camera stuff.

To mark the release of Imperial Bedrooms a year or two ago it seems all of Ellis’s books were re-released, with similarly designed covers. Imperial Bedrooms has an image of what appears to be a devil on the front. There aren’t many characters in this book that deserve to be described as anything more or less than demonic. The re-release of Less Than Zero, I mentioned in my January post, has an image on the front that reminded me of a zombie. I don’t think that was intentional because it’s more of a computer game zombie I’m thinking of, not a proper zombie. But it was kind of cool to see Ellis, in his latest book, referring to the characters in his first book as zombies.

Because they are. They all are. And they’re all zombies in this one, too.  So I guess maybe what we should glean from this is that America is full of zombies. The End.

Maybe.

Less Than Zero was better than Imperial Bedrooms, I think. But Imperial Bedrooms is still very, very good. Better than most of what you’ll read in the next few months, I suspect.So if you’re some kind of weirdo and you’ve read Less Than Zero and enjoyed it but you haven;t read Imperial Bedrooms yet and look there just aren’t those kinds of weirdos out there are there but if you’re one of those weirdos… Do yourself a favour.

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